24 April 2016

What Disney's Live Action Resurgence Means for We Mortals

Making a billion dollars at the Box Office has become disturbingly more commonplace than it used to be, which is partly why when Timmy B's Alice in Wonderland (2010) lit it up in a slight re-imagining of one of Disney's animation mainstays, a whole shitload of comparable adaptations followed. Within a few months in 2016 we're seeing the ultimate culmination of this, to a fully developed palpable effect. We're coming off the heels of The Jungle Book (2016), which is doing surprisingly well critically and financially, and just saw the follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), although pushed in a slightly different direction. This summer we'll also all get to lay eyes on The Legend of Tarzan (2016), cementing our astounding year.
You know, if it was really realistic, Baloo wouldn't sing.
Or let Mowgli keep his face on his head.

So, before we go any further let's get a few things out of the way. You ought to know by now that I am assuredly on top of my pop culture, and it's true that Disney has nothing to do with The Legend of Tarzan, which is produced by Warner Bros and based on the same Edgar Rice Burroughs character who has been chilling in the public domain for a while now. The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) is also a Universal Studios production, but its combination of Snow White and Frozen (2013) really seem to scream Disney adaptation, although it's a bit dark.

We always need to get back to the concept of cultural interest, though. In the race to adapt any and all properties that might have a recall factor that studios conceive will spark interest, where is that disparity between IPs that capture zeitgeist and those that fail? Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book certainly struck their respective nerves. The Lone Ranger (2013) and Dark Shadows (2012) not so much.

It's no accident that I listed two Tim Burton efforts to illustrate that this doesn't really have anything to do with the director in charge. In fact, under the current studio blockbuster system it's arguable that the director really has anything to do with the property under development, with the exception of the serious auteurs like Chris Nolan or Zack Snyder, which for better or worse, have enough cache to do whatever they want.

But back to the point at hand, I want to focus in on The Jungle Book and The Huntsman: Winter's War in particular, because neither are films that I'd necessarily expect to do well, yet one of them has had an excellent opening, and the other is looking a whole lot more mild, if not exactly an outright failure. Of course, it's really to hard to tell after only a day, although as of now Winter's War is sitting at $7 mill and about half of The Jungle Book's take in its second week.

So let's dissect this shit. The Jungle Book (1967) is beloved, which could be mostly because it was Walt Disney the man's last film, because of its rollicking songs, or artful story construction. There is certainly some muddying as to whether or not the original short story collection by Rudyard Kipling is super-racist, and you can read a lot into King Louie the Orangutan being a jive-talking blackvoice who wants to be human, but as a cultural force alone, it's fairly prevalent. Most people have a good knowledge of the characters, even if it's just like "the evil tiger", "the evil snake", "the goofy bear", and "that panther that I forget if he was good or evil." And of course the "weren't there wolves, too? Did the wolves or the panther and bear raise that little Indian motherfucker?" These are all obviously artifacts that lead to strong recognition and desire to revisit that world. But we all have reasons to become invested at some point.

Also, TaleSpin. We don't make enough about TaleSpin. How was it completely accepted in stride that all these characters were just placed in a completely new setting and genre and everyone was totally down? Not to phrase it negatively like that, but could we ever have like, the entire cast of Frozen appear in a Sherlock-Holmes murder mystery with no reference to Arendale or frost powers? This is just amazing to me. How has this not happened more often? Will we get a Jon Favreau TaleSpin movie with photo-realistic animals? Damn straight we better.
The cold never bothered me anyway.

More importantly, though, our current incarnation of The Jungle Book retains a lot of what was special about the original while pushing the effects forward in a big way that beefs up the core thesis of the story. Retaining what made the original IP special while adding new elements that actually advance the viewing experience is a critical component to revitalizing old franchises. This incremental adjustment has provided mind-bogglingly huge dividends across the box office.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum we have this new Snow White series, which isn't really Snow White at all, but tries harder to use the Huntsman as its connective tissue, even if Charlize Theron's Queen Whatever is probably the stronger selling point. The series continues to throw out the only reason why using the IP would be worthwhile, even if it favors shit that's really cool and creepy that's like a Lars von Trier scene in a major blockbuster.

Ultimately at the intersection of good films and commercially successful films The Jungle Book is doing quite a bit better than The Huntsman: Winter's War, even if the latter is a bit more out there, which ought to be encouraged. This is only so good to a degree, though, because no matter what, a movie that actually rests on its own merits will rise to the top eventually.

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